About a fortnight back we went to Canberra to see Diane Arbus' American portraits at the National Gallery of Australia. Feel very fortunate to have seen all 36 vintage photographs* - which as the Canberra times mentions was the first ever. Diane's work is very powerful and evocative. She connects with her subject deeply and has gone to places few women did in the 1950-60s.Being from an affluent family - the daughter of a wealthy businessman who owned a department store in the fifth avenue Manhattan Diane shunned her life of riches to follow her passion to photographing the marginalised and outcast of the society. Known for her offbeat subjects and powerful raw imagery she made a name for herself quickly. Sadly her marriage ended in 1969. Two years later she committed suicide.
In the history of photography, Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was a peculiarly American phenomenon, but once you have seen her work, you will never forget it. Her photographs may be not priceless, but frequently they attract sums of more than $500,000 each.
Fortunately for Australia, the inaugural, visionary director of the National Gallery, James Mollison, bought* 36 crisp vintage photographs from the Arbus Estate in 1980/81. All of these photographs are being shown together, for the first time, accompanied by a selection of works by other contemporary photographers of the American social landscape, including Garry Winogrand, William Klein and Lee Friedlander.
Unconventional subject matter of Diane Arbus' portraits
Diane's work mainly throws light on the starving population, the coloured men and mixed marriages of the weird and wonderful shows that ran off the 42nd street in Manhattan. Even though she came from a place of plenty she found a way to build rapport with her wonderful subjects. Her work is somewhat of a secret, we know some things about her and her wonderful subjects but there is still so many mysteries to be discovered in every frame. They are open-ended mysteries of stories and perhaps she knew them all pretty intimately. I sense passion, anguish and empathy in her subjects and it clearly shows in her labour of love.
“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” —Diane Arbus